I have just returned from my trip to Tanzania and oh, how amazing that was! One of the beautiful experiences that I have done in the country was a homestay in Tanzania through Duara Travels (who unfortunately stopped operating), close to Moshi, in the Kilimanjaro region. If you want to experience Tanzania off the beaten path, to see the way of life of the locals and to understand their culture better, choosing a homestay for a few days is a wonderful decision. Not only that you will learn about the local customs and traditions, but you will also eat delicious homemade food and interact with the family, getting the chance to ask them whatever you want.
Having a conversation with Miriam, one of my host’s family daughter, I’ve learned how she dreams of becoming a wine maker. An ambitious girl, whilst she was still doing her household chores such as cooking and washing, she planned already all the steps she needs to take in order to achieve her dream.
The grandsons of the family, even if only a few years old, were also actively helping with the chores around the house, especially looking after the chickens. At the same ages, children in Europe worry about nothing.
Most of the people traveling to Tanzania limit their trip to a safari and to the beaches of Zanzibar. From my experience, Tanzania is a very safe country to travel to as a solo female traveller and with this article I would like to encourage you to step out of the touristic track and get to know the people of Tanzania and their way of living. You will understand their country so much better!
If you want to experience Tanzania off the beaten path, then Lembeni is the place to go. Known only to locals and non-existent in any Tanzanian travel guide, Lembeni is a village about an hour and a half away from Moshi, at the foothills of the Pare Mountains. The entire area is very green, with plenty of vegetation, and with red soil.
Lembeni is a small village in which everyone seems to know each other. Walking down the street, when passing by, people stop and chat for a couple of minutes.
The easiest way to get to Lembeni is by dala dala, from Moshi. You can either take the express dala dala (which costs 5000 shillings/£1.7 and it is a bit bigger), or the normal van type dala dala (which costs 2500 shillings/£0.80 and will stop every time is flagged down by someone on the side of the road). Whichever dala dala you choose, expect it to be overcrowded. If there are 4 seats next to each other, be sure that 5 people will be squeezing on them. As dala dalas are leaving only when they are full, my advice would be to jump in an empty one and choose a window seat, even if there is already another one ready to go. Also, you need to remember that dala dalas only stop when people need to get on or off, so be prepared to shout “Shusha” to the driver to stop as you reach Lembeni.
The Host Family
Haruni, the father of the host family, waited for me at the dala dala and helped me with my luggage to the house, which is very close to the main road. Then, he introduced me to his family: his wife Hadija, his daughter Mariam and his grandchildren Siamini, Haitham and Samiri. The next day I also met his son, Bakari, at Haruni’s tree planting project at the nearby Nyumba ya Mungu man made lake.
Except for Hadija, everyone spoke English and I could easily communicate with my host family.
Tanzania Homestay Accommodation
Most of the population of Tanzania lives in the rural areas, in modest homes, with basic facilities. When you choose to experience a homestay in Tanzania you should expect this when it comes to accommodation. You will live, sleep and eat the same way as the locals do.
Haruni has a small but welcoming house, in which I was offered a private room. The room was small, with a bed covered by a mosquito net and a tiny table to put my things on. But that was ok, as I only used the room to sleep in. The toilet was outside, on the opposite side of the garden, and the shower was just a bucket of water, which Mariam would boil for me every evening so that it is hot.
The cooking is mostly done outside, on hot coals. We all ate together in the small dining room in front of the house.
In the yard, Haruni is growing pumpkins and several different trees, among which tamarind and dates. He is also growing mint, which is a very unusual plant for Africa. During his trip to Germany, a few years ago, he liked it so much that he brought back seeds and plant them in his garden. Now he has a small patch of mint.
Around the yard chickens and ducks roam free together with their chicks and ducklings.
When I arrived in the village, there was no electricity due to a storm knocking down two poles the night before. This is normal however, as Tanzania is still a developing country, with only 7% of the rural areas having access to electricity. Blackouts happen often, and I have experienced quite a few during my three weeks trip in Tanzania.
Tanzania Homestay Experience in Lembeni
Besides staying with the locals, the homestay experience in Tanzania also offers different activities that you can do to learn more about the village life. Unfortunately, during my visit, not many were available. I would have loved to hike in the nearby hills, visit the hot springs or experience the Maasai culture, but Haruni advised against it due to different reasons.
You should be aware that if you want to visit some of the places that are not in the village with Haruni as your driver, you will need to pay extra for fuel for the car. I found the charges to be quite high, after being in Tanzania for a while and getting familiar with the petrol prices.
We agreed that from the list of things to do around, I would learn how to cook pilau, a traditional Tanzanian dish, from Hadija and Miriam, visit the local “savings group” and go see Haruni’s planting project at the nearby lake.
Visit the Local Community
The savings group is a local association of women (and a man) who make different things which they sell in the market and gather once a month to put the profit in a communal pot. You could call these women entrepreneurs who have created their own local bank. If one of them is in need of money, the group lends it from the pot for three months and gets it back with interest. At the end of the year, the members of the group open the money box and split the profit between them.
Even if none of the women present at the gathering spoke English, they all brought in their products to show me what they make: from straw bags to tailored fabrics, from musical instruments to clay pots and ovens. It was quite fascinating to see how this local community has come together and developed a system that makes them a little bit of profit each year. Not to mention, it helps them when they are in need.
They are also growing sunflowers, to produce cooking oil. They take the seeds to a nearby village, where they press them into oil. Then they bring it back and sell it to the local community.
The women insisted I see them singing and dancing, which was another surprise, something you can only see when you experience Tanzania off the beaten path. Nowhere else in the country I have seen anything like it. They even involved me in the dancing, even if I had no idea what I was doing or which the steps were. After dancing in the garden, with a break for peanuts and soda, they led the way back to the village, singing. It was so beautiful, especially that all of them were wearing beautiful dresses, made out of vibrant coloured fabric.
Go to the Local Market in Lembeni
Before starting my cooking lesson on how to make pilau, I went to the local market together with Siamini, to buy the needed ingredients. First, we went to a local shop to buy the rice. Then, we went to the market. As it was the new Year, not a lot of people were selling their goods in the market. However, I still got the feel of the place and see the seasonal fruits and vegetables: mostly potatoes, onions, carrots, okra, tomatoes, bananas, oranges and mangoes.
People in the market were very friendly, greeting me and shaking my hand. As Lembeni is off the beaten track, not a lot of tourists come here.
Learn How to Cook Pilau
Back home, Hadija taught me how to make pilau. If you have travelled to any African country, you know that pilau is not only a local dish, but a staple of the entire continent. And beyond! Practically a rice dish, each country has its own version of pilau: Nigeria and Ghana have the jollof; the Balkans have the pilaf; India has the biryani; the Caribbean islands have the pelau; Spain has the paella. You see, pilau comes under different names, different countries, but it has the same base: rice with spices!
Tanzanian pilau uses 5 main spices: black peppercorn, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon and cloves.
To start the pilau, Hadija firstly heat up the oil in a big pot, then put some chopped onions in to fry. Whilst the onions were caramelising, Hadija grinded all the spices in a mortar, with a giant pestle. Once the onions became crispy, Hadija added a bit of water on top and covered the pot with a lid. She repeated this process a few times, every time the water evaporated for a bit. It took a good 40 minutes until she added the spices, time in which the water infused with the onion flavour. Once the rice was washed, she added it on top and covered the pot again.
Whilst when I make rice at home, I know exactly the quantity of rice to water and how many minutes I need to simmer for it to be perfect and not burn, on a coal stove that’s not easy to do. I was amazed on how Hadija managed to make perfect pilau without any measurements or temperature control. The pot of pilau she made fed 12 people and had leftovers as well!
Visit the Asidco Project
On New Year’s Day, the entire family squeezed into the car loaded with home made food and drove to Haruni’s environmental project site, where he has created a small forest. There, we met his son, Bakari, and some of his friends.
Haruni has created the Asidco project to plant trees on an empty field, near the Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir. He has dug a well going 16 meters below the ground that pumps water and brings it to the surface, to irrigate the land. At the top, the trees are already grown and provide wonderful shade. That is where we had out picnic, which Hadija and Miriam cooked in the morning: pilau, bananas with meat, beef stew and cabbage salad. It was a proper feast!
After lunch, Bakari, Miriam, Siamini and one of their cousins walked with me down to the lake, to watch the fishermen bring in their catch to the shore. It was a very hot day and being near the water felt very refreshing, as there was a slight breeze in the air.
Things to know about doing a homestay in Tanzania
There are a few things you should know when you decide to do a homestay in Tanzania. Spending a few days with the locals in Tanzania is a wonderful cultural experience in which you will learn a lot about how the family duties are spread between the members but also about the local traditions and how the daily life goes by, without any modern technology.
When you choose a homestay in Tanzania expect to live the exact same way as the locals do. There are no fancy rooms and no special bathrooms, you will use the exact same the family does. The toilet is usually a squatty, located in the back of the yard.
Also, expect blackouts and no phone signal. In Lembeni I didn’t have a phone signal, there was only one particular spot in the garden where I would have two bars out of five. Prepare to give up internet for a few days, when you are in the village.
Have you ever experienced a homestay before? Would you like to? Have you traveled to Tanzania before? I would love to read your thoughts in the comments below.
Disclaimer: Please note that I was a guest of Duara Travels in Lembeni, with the purpose of reviewing the homestay. However, all the opinions in this article are my own and I would not recommend anything that I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself doing or think it was a great place to visit.
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